The one in which Neil gets a reality check…

Great news.

When an event or situation gets ‘great’ attached to the front of it, you can generally assume that what follows is a description of something with significant importance to society: in the past for instance, we’ve had historically monumental things like ‘the great war’, ‘the great depression’ and more recently ‘the great financial crisis’.

Hold that ‘financial crisis’ thought in mind, as I beg your indulgence to bear with me whilst I ramble on a bit about world events, before going into more detail about what we’ve been up to lately. Because in the sense of ‘the oneness of everything’, what follows relates to what’s been happening with us as we continue settling-in, and I attempt to get myself established with work here…

It would seem that the latest iteration of the ‘great’ prefix is a phenomenon known as ‘the great resignation’, a term coined by Anthony Klotz, an American professor of business and management at the Texas A&M University; and I’m sure to the irritation of those pulling all of our strings, it might even be that this great resignation activity is a thorn in the side of another great endeavour currently underway, ‘the great reset’ – the latest over-arching plan our political masters have for us, delivered through that proof-of-concept model for world government, the World Economic Forum, leveraging the impact of Covid-19.

This outwardly egalitarian, inwardly elitist (and I happen to think rather sinister) blueprint for human progress is promised for some abstract ‘post-Covid’ period; an alluring prospect of a time when the world is free from the Corona virus. Sadly, that vision of widespread and renewed health, wealth and happiness is somewhat out of step with the evidence now showing that as far as SARS-CoV-2 is concerned, it has become endemic, meaning it is now constant in the population (as opposed to being an epidemic  – an outbreak with tight geographical boundaries, that quickly developed into a pandemic – an epidemic that spread across many countries and many continents). But if there’s one good thing to come from the outbreak of Covid-19 variants, it’s that I can now count up to 15 (Omicron) in ancient Greek.

What the great resignation is revealing is that in many countries within the developed world, huge numbers of workers are noticeably reacting to the social changes that have been forced upon them; and it appears that as a result of the disruption caused by Covid-enforced restrictions, unprecedented numbers of people are simply quitting their jobs.

Recently, The Harvard Business Review reported that in July, 4 million Americans had had enough and left their employment (according to figures from the US Dept. of Labor); and by September, that monthly figure was up to 4.4 million. In the same report, it stated that 10.9 million jobs remain unfilled in the US.

Earlier this month, the Guardian newspaper reported that in the UK ‘Almost a quarter of workers are actively planning to change employers in the next few months’, suggesting that this was ‘part of a “great resignation” prompted by a high number of vacancies and burnout caused by the pandemic’, with manufacturing, construction, tech and logistics workers the most confident about finding new roles.

Trouble in Paradise.

In Australia, where health officials prevaricated over making vaccinations available to the population for 18 months (but now impose them with an iron fist), and Melbourne snatched the title of ‘the longest locked-down city in the world’ from Buenos Aires, ABC News has suggested that the trend is starting to appear here, too.

The effects on work patterns have been enormous in some parts of Australia, yet almost non-existent in others: a friend of mine, who has a senior administrative role in Sydney, returned to work in his city-centre office this week for the first time in a year and a half.

Meanwhile, whilst the borders between states remain closed to individuals (frustrating for those out-of-state wanting to attend the opening Test Match of The Ashes series in Brisbane), vital interstate workers such as truck drivers delivering essential goods are compelled to be certified as ‘double-jabbed’, subjected to presenting negative Covid test certificates on entry and departure, and required to undergo continuous testing. Unsurprisingly, the trend for the great resignation down-under has been seen earliest in this sector.

My Blue (Collar) Heaven.

But what might perhaps mitigate the great resignation here, is that in Australia, across all sectors, average salary levels are at least 28% higher than their counterparts in the UK; and some differences are remarkably greater: a police officer in Australia for instance, starts on $65,846 (£35,505). In the UK, the starting salary of a police officer is £20,880 – that’s 70% more for being an Aussie bobbie. For a newly qualified nurse in Australia, the starting salary is $65,000 (£38,535); in the UK that nurse would earn £25,653 – 50% less than their counterpart down-under.

Examples like this show why Australian adults are now the richest in the world; and the backbone of the economy is the Blue Collar worker.  

Blue collar workers are those that generally fall under the umbrella of providing manual labour and being paid by the hour; but of course, the term ‘blue collar worker’ is a bit of a mouthful for Australians, so, like most titles or descriptions here, it gets shortened and made to end in with an ‘ie’… Meaning these folk are known as ‘tradies’; and their hands-on occupations are related to things like the construction, electrical, plumbing and manufacturing sectors,

My favourite example of this blue collar premium is the running joke we used to have in the car as Heather and I drove around Queensland, during the visits we would regularly make before we lived here permanently. Once she told me that the traffic-control ‘Stop-Go’ lollipop-sign operators you see wherever there are roadworks, earned $100,000 a year. I laughed, thinking she was pulling my leg, but in good spirit I went along with it; and each time we saw one at work (well, standing stock still holding a stop-go sign) I would wave to them and say to Heather, ‘how about that, they’re pulling in $100K for just standing there’. And I’d say it an ironic tone, bordering on sarcastic, inferring that Heather’s suggestion was simply ludicrous.

So when I say it used to be a running joke, that’s because as per normal, Heather was bang-on the money; and how stupid did I feel when after years of teasing her, I read a report that said that the Queensland government was introducing a new, minimum wage of $180,000 per year for those ‘Stop-Go’ operators. I’m crimson with embarrassment as I write this now (and still questioning the career choices I have made). I’m happy for them, but for the life of me I have no idea how that job commands that level of pay.

Anyway, it’s fair to say that unlike other developed countries, the blue collar jobs in Australia tend to be very well paid indeed. In July 2020, the trade website iseekplant.com.au reported that the average tradie earned $90,246.55 per year, which is $5,236.55 above the national average wage in Australia, which is just over $85,000 (£45, 840). In contrast, the UK average wage lags a long way behind at £25,971 (a 76.5% difference in the wrong direction, if my maths is correct.) Even the mandatory minimum wage here is double that of America, and one-and-a-half times that set by the EU.

So, I hope I could be forgiven for thinking that my industry, the impossibly glamorous world of film and television, would surely be no different to anything else here… Even if it was at the modest end of a potential 28% pay rise, any increase would be incredibly welcome after the last few years of me bumping along from job-to-job, and surviving rather than thriving, in the UK.

Rocking all over the world (the kit, that is).

It was always our intention to bring all the sound equipment with us to Australia, in a shipping container by sea, to enable me to assemble a fully operational studio to supplement the work still being carried out by The Audio Suite in the UK, which is being brilliantly run by our appointee, and director of post-production, Marcus Byrne.

So, when I was in Japan and received an approach from an Australian facility company to act as both the dialogue editor and the re-recording mixer on an 8 x 1-hour, high-end television drama series about to be shot in Queensland, I was naturally interested.

Initial details were sketchy, but the principle cast members were of recognized international merit, and the premise seemed gentle and appropriate for me to add some value to. There was no script to see and no money was proposed at that preliminary stage, and I too committed only in as much as saying I was interested in the project, let’s talk some more; but the not inconsiderable challenge of me sourcing the equipment I needed began to occupy my thoughts – because mine would still be in transit somewhere between Southampton and Brisbane when the series was due to arrive in post-production.

More than a little help from my friends.

I’m fortunate to have good friends within the industry, and Blackmagic Design, an Australian company and new owners of Fairlight, the Sydney-based manufacturer of the hardware and software I have used since 1999 for sound editing and mixing, came up trumps. They kindly arranged to loan me replica units to the equipment of mine that is en-route and helped with the purchase of some newly released equipment, which would make the operational tasks of mixing more efficient to carry out.

And so, from the time of my return from Japan and leaving hotel quarantine in Brisbane in September, I had just under a month to pull together and test a fully functioning studio, which would be conveniently housed in a spare cutting room at the premises of the facility company who were engaging me to edit and mix their client’s programme.

My Fairlight system needed to not only function as an editor and mixer, it needed to integrate with the IT ecosystem within the building, and it also needed to be able to network with editing colleagues in other parts of the country. What I had to ensure was that the exchange of project data, and the workflow between me and my colleagues, was seamless. But perhaps most importantly, I needed to arrange that the stored programme assets would remain secure on the facility company’s server.

I undertook these days of installation and commissioning work unpaid because it was plainly in my interest to do so; and I also purchased extra mixing equipment as a show of my good faith to the project. In the spirit of collaboration, I also agreed to host my Fairlight audio editing and mixing software on an iMac computer that the facility company already had on their network; and in return, I was able to borrow 6 monitor speakers from them to run a small 5.1 mixing array. They weren’t my choice of speaker by any means, but with my own precious PMC monitor speakers still in the hold of a Liberian-registered container ship, somewhere on the high seas, I was grateful. 

Digital audio, one bit at a time.

This is as good a point as any to give you more detail about what I do when I work as a Supervising Sound Editor, a re-recording mixer and a dialogue editor.

Let’s start with this: when a programme is to have its English dialogue replaced by actors speaking, let’s say, Spanish, the studio doing this replacement work will need the music, the sound effects and the background atmospheres and ambiences, to be totally separate from the original English dialogue they are replacing. Because when I create the original soundtrack for a programme, all of these elements are carefully mixed-up together.

A master English language version of a programme will usually be delivered as a fully mixed 5.1 soundtrack (that’s with a Left speaker, a Centre speaker, a Right speaker in front of you, and a Left surround speaker and a Right surround speaker behind you, with a larger sub-woofer speaker for the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) also placed somewhere in the room). A stereo version is also made available (and in that version, all the sound comes out of just the Left and Right front speakers).

But many projects these days require a foreign language version to be assembled (and then carefully re-mixed), with new voices sitting alongside the backgrounds, ambiences and music I have edited and mixed into the original programme.

I’m understating the effort involved somewhat, but providing I do my job well, the task of the ‘localisation’ studio (the studio adding the foreign language), should be straightforward: in a 5.1 mix for television programmes, the dialogue is contained to the Centre channel only, and so that is all that should need replacing. The sound on the Left and Right, the Left surround and Right surround channels, and the LFE, shouldn’t need touching.

International syndication is rather like making a McDonalds burger – the English language dialogue is the all-important meat patty in the Quarter Pounder: if you want to, you can substitute the beef for a chicken or vegetarian patty of your choice (a foreign language). However, the lettuce (the sound effects), the tomato and onion (the ambiences and atmospheres), the mayo (the Foley) and the bun itself (the music) can remain the same; so, by substituting the beef patty for chicken (changing the language of the dialogue), audiences should still end up with a familiar and satisfying treat.

This construction, and de-construction, of the soundtrack is at the end of the audio post-production process, though. Before any of that can take place, the dialogue recorded on set must be edited, the sound effects and background atmospheres created, and the human sounds of footsteps, clothes rustles, (and any other physical sounds that recording ‘clean’ dialogue on set, or editing the pictures and sound from set, might have lost), must either be put back in or added to the soundtrack by people like me.

I would have two colleagues elsewhere in Australia to look after what is known as ‘Foley’ (the added physical, human sounds – named after the technique’s inventor, Jack Foley) and the slightly different discipline of compiling sound effects (adding sounds such as wind, birdsong, background chatter, or traffic).

And it would be me that would fit the supplied music around the dialogue, sound effects and Foley during the ‘tracklay’: the process of collating and placing all the different types of sounds into the soundtrack timeline, after the dialogue edit, to ensure that the viewer hears everything that the pictures suggest that they should… (It’s a different conversation, for a different time, but in essence this is what ‘sound design’, and my job as a sound editor and re-recording mixer, is: it’s my responsibility to choose and use sound to consciously and sub-consciously suggest things to an audience, as they watch a sequence of pictures; and from the thoughtful use of these sounds, to elicit an emotional response in the ‘listening viewers’ that the pictures alone wouldn’t achieve.

As it happens, I can recommend an excellent book on this very topic…

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work I go...

Having successfully got the room ready to start work, it was frustrating for all of us that the start of the project got put back to an undetermined date by the Production company; and I was concerned that I was still unable to glean any information about the schedule, or my fee. Things had been put on hold whilst some further – and extensive – picture editing changes were carried out. Then, out of the blue, I got a call to ask if I would start editing the dialogue, the next day. It was now November, and we were starting more than a month later than planned.

On the technical front, I could do nothing other than trust that all would be well with what the picture department would give me to work with, because my requests to have an input in the pre-production planning process – to discuss matters that would impact on the audio post-production process – had disappointingly, but not unusually, fallen on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, a bit more about audio post-production.

On a drama set, there are usually two microphones being manipulated by boom operators, above the actors’ heads, wielded with great skill and dexterity out of sight of the camera. (This example of boom operating on the feature film Hugo will show you how specialist and valuable boom operating skills are to a movie.) These are usually called Boom 1 and Boom 2 on their digital audio recording file names; and then there are personal radio microphones fitted to each of the actors (these are known as ‘Lavalier’ microphones) and these recordings usually have file names imaginatively called Lav 1, Lav 2, Lav 3 and Lav 4 (there can be more, of course).

The first thing a picture editor must do when starting work on a programme, is to take into their computer system all the digital pictures from the on-set camera, and then synchronize them with all the separate digital sound recordings the location sound recordist has made. (You used to be able to tell when this wasn’t done very well in the days of film and magnetic tape, because hilariously, people’s mouths didn’t fit the shape of the words they were saying. Nowadays it is a quick and accurate computerised process.)

When the picture editor imports the location sound files, the order that these 8 tracks of audio are presented to the picture editor’s computer system is generally with the location recordist’s two-track guide mix uppermost (a rough mix of all the microphones used in a scene, and called ‘Mix Left’ and ‘Mix Right’), and then underneath that, the 6 individual microphones (the two booms and four lavalier mics isolated on their own tracks) are stacked one above the other in perfect alignment.

Usually, the picture editor cuts the pictures as they listen to the location sound recordist’s guide mix; but the dialogue editor, by referencing the guide mix that the picture editor has cut the pictures to, can then painstakingly rebuild a track using the best quality recording for each shot, by listening and choosing between the recordings of the actors personal microphones, or one of the two boom microphones moving above their heads. In an ideal world, all 8 of these individual sound clips would be left on the picture editing timeline when the picture editor ‘synced’ all the location audio to the camera pictures; and then the picture editor would work with all the individual microphones muted, apart from the guide mix, but the silenced sound clips would remain neatly stacked underneath the two guide tracks.

These isolated (‘iso’) microphone recordings are invaluable to the dialogue editor; because hopefully, the picture editor has chosen the best take for sound as well as for picture… However, it may be that whilst the pictures are perfect, the actor slurred or stumbled over a word. When this happens, and where there are multiple takes of a scene, the dialogue editor must refer back to the sound recordists notes and seek out a different take from the field recordings, where hopefully that one word – sometimes even just a syllable within a word – can be found and seamlessly replaced with a clean recording, spoken in a different take.

As it happens, where I can, I like to synchronize the waveforms of the best Boom microphone with the best Lavalier microphone so that I can hear the openness and more natural sound of a boom microphone, combined with the presence and clarity of the personal microphone. (The waveforms need synchronizing to correct the slight time differences between the boom and the personal microphones, which can result in an echoey, unwanted audible artefact. This is due to the difference in distance that the sound from an actor’s mouth must travel to be heard by the boom, compared to the distance to the lavalier mic.) It’s an extra fiddle because at present on my editing system, this process isn’t automated (I’m sure it will be soon), but the reward is clearer speech; and that, in my opinion, is the alpha and omega of good dialogue editing… Effortless intelligibility. (And there’s that ancient Greek, again.)

Great Expectations.

I had been hoping to present my thoughts for a smooth workflow between picture editing and sound editing in the pre-production planning stage; and not least of all because I’d been told that time and money were tight on this project. I asked for all 8 audio tracks to be left on the editor’s timeline, for my use, but muted whilst they edited pictures. (The reason this is becoming a standard practice is that all the audio clips are synchronized to the pictures at the start of an edit, it’s not just the guide mix that is imported. So to do this import and synchronizing job twice is to waste time; and in post-production – as with any production engineering process – time equals money.)

This is why I didn’t really want to be presented with just the edited guide mix and then have to use a list of the editor’s cuts (the ‘EDL’ or Edit Decision List generated by their editing software) to re-assemble the rest of the available audio clips; even though there is a standard procedure, and software, for doing just this.

So, day one involved me taking a look through the myriad cuts the picture editor had made in the location audio tracks, whilst I awaited the extra, original 8 tracks of audio to be sent to me by a colleague. They were carrying out the audio ‘conform’ for me, (in the US it’s called an ‘assembly’), which is when only the specific location sound recordings used by the picture editor are placed into something called an AAF file, which is sort of like an audio .PDF document.

But the most important thing that this AAF file does (its full name is an ‘Advanced Authoring Format’ file) is it stacks all the related audio clips for each shot, one above the other, and aligns them perfectly with the audio guide track that the picture editor has used for editing purposes, for the full duration of the programme on the editing timeline.

If this all sounds laborious and time-consuming, be assured, it is. Which is why by now, I was rather desperate to know how long I was going to be given to dialogue edit this 1-hour, high-end television drama. Because here I was, working away in a dark, windowless room, on a prime-time programme, without yet knowing what the schedule was.

On day 2, three things arrived. Firstly, came the crucial AAF file containing the original 8 tracks of audio related to those used by the picture editor, which thankfully did synchronize perfectly to each shot of the programme. But I didn’t just have the 8 tracks from the location recorder to select from; I’d been given an AAF file with 65 tracks of audio to sort through… Something 8 times the size I was expecting and comprising a total of 9,059 individual audio clips (the computer gives a readout of the number of audio clips as it transfers the AAF file into my editing system).

In itself, the number of clips and tracks in the AAF wasn’t a problem: the clip and track count on feature films these days is routinely (but often unnecessarily) enormous; and so my Fairlight can handle 1,000 audio tracks if required. Nor was the AAF faulty in any way. No, the only issue was that of time: sorting out 65 tracks of audio wasn’t going to be as quick a job as dropping-in 8 tracks; and here’s why.

Each audio clip can have several things done to it in the process of the dialogue edit, including: deleting the clip altogether, making the clip louder, making the clip quieter, extending the beginning of the recording, extending the tail of the recording, crossfading with another clip at its start, crossfading with another clip at its end, moving up or down a track on the audio editor screen, moving to a time earlier or later in the timeline, having equalisation applied to it to change the frequency response and timbre of the sound, or having digital restoration carried out on it.

That’s 11 options, multiplied by 9,059 clips, which means in this instance, 99,649 decisions would have to be made by me as the dialogue editor. That’s a lot of work to get through; but the first thing I did was to identify and delete the spurious extra clips, spread out over the 65 tracks.

ADR? PDQ

Secondly came the schedule: I was to be allocated 40 hours (5 x 8 hour days) to prepare the dialogue tracks for mixing, (which felt a bit tight to me); and after just 16 hours (2 days), I needed to have listened to and identified all the lines of dialogue that were sub-standard in the episode, then prepare a list of precise timecodes, character names and the lines of dialogue that needed to be re-voiced in the studio, by the actor concerned. (A process called ADR – short for ‘Automatic Dialogue Replacement’ – but sometimes referred to as ‘dubbing’ or ‘looping’.) And then of course, those re-voiced lines would need to be fitted back into the dialogue edit after they’d been recorded: I counted 65 lines that needed replacing (at 5 minutes per line (5 x 65 ‘cues’) that would mean over 5 and a half hours of extra studio recording time to wade through). If I recorded the ADR that would need to be ‘extra’ time, outside of the allocated 5 days; but at least I would know what I was getting. However, if I wasn’t present at the recordings, I would be reliant on someone else doing a good job; and then I’d be stuck with making whatever I was given, work, and this would be within my allotted 5 days… I’ve done an awful lot of ADR, and I know that it takes a delicate touch to make it work well.

For a 1-hour drama with ambitions to be a high-quality product, this all seemed a tad tight to me. In fact, nobody I know seems to dialogue edit drama in the time they are paid for: most dialogue editors are by nature perfectionists and the one-size-fits-all ‘standard’ of 5 x 8-hour days per 1 hour television drama, given the expectations of today’s clients and viewers, has resulted in many editors having to work for 7 days on an episode; two of which they are completely unpaid for. So whilst this schedule wasn’t a complete surprise; it was definitely not generous.

If it seems exploitative, my colleagues and I would agree with you: but it’s become standard practice in the UK and the US; and so too, apparently, in Australia.

But then what of the rate, the fee that I would be paid per hour?

I had a conversation in my head; I got all geed up; I steeled myself: ‘Come on Neil, you might have to put in some long shifts, but if the pay is at least 28% higher in Australia than the UK – sometimes it’s way more – you could stomach that, couldn’t you? Suck it up and get an Australian production under your belt and onto your CV, for goodness’ sake!’

And then, at last, on the afternoon of the second day, came the message that I had been waiting for: the email detailing the hourly rate I would be paid. I was by now, deeply into the edit.

I can’t put it any other way: my heart sank. It was pretty much half of what I felt to be reasonable. How could it possibly be that far off?

Going For a Song.

Well, whilst other blue collar workers might command a high price in Australia (and I have always considered the operational work of film and television to be a blue collar occupation) when I went off and checked the Media Entertainments and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Motion Picture Production Agreement document, a minimum payment rate card for the film and television industry in Australia, it shows that, on average, the fees are 60% less than those listed by its counterpart in the UK, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communication and Theatre Union (BECTU), on their minimum payment rate card.

Yes, you read that right, the rates are 60% less when you do exactly the same work as a freelancer in Australia.

But here’s the thing – when I checked with industry friends, they all pointed out that no self-respecting freelancer in Australia works to the MEAA rate card anyway; to all intents and purposes it’s a completely meaningless document. Producers know that, and obviously, so do the freelancers they engage. Instead, colleagues told me, the market exists as a free-for-all, where you horse-trade and get what you can for the job. Being recently arrived, that would be tricky.

Not wanting to in any way sour the good relations I had with my new client, (as you might imagine, being the new kid in town), there were some delicate emails that went backwards and forwards between us. They’d made a proposal covering the time and fee for the dialogue editing, and I’d expressed my dismay at the hourly rate. Naturally, we both remained polite about it; but there’s really no way of sweetening a ‘take it or leave it’ offer.  

I decided to leave it; and then felt truly awful about the whole affair. And conflicted… For the last few years I’ve been a judge at the Australian Screen Sound Guild (ASSG) annual awards, and I know that some of the independent films being made here – apparent to me now on a tiny budget – are fantastic works; and I’d hoped I might find a place in that creative community. But you have to pay the rent.

And it’s not that I’d been stitched-up by my client; I hadn’t. I’d just been ridiculously naïve, assuming I’d be paid at least what I was in the UK, but actually hoping it would be better, down-under. At that point I felt pretty stupid and I felt mightily embarrassed.

Why they sell Vegemite in Earl’s Court.

Out of an Australian population of just over 25 million, at any one time about a million of them are living long-term, overseas; and now I understood why so many of those Australian ex-pats are film and television technicians living and working in the UK. Mainly in London. They’d been compelled to vote with their feet in an attempt to get paid what they know they are worth to any production; and it’s clearly impossible to do so in their native land: an otherwise well-paid paradise described astutely by the BBC’s Australia correspondent Nick Bryant as ‘the lifestyle superpower of the world’, in his intelligent and insightful book ‘The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a great nation lost its way.’

The blindingly obvious was staring me straight in the face, and its realisation hit me like a sock full of wet sand behind the ear: I was approaching this exactly 180 degrees out of phase – you don’t move to Australia as an experienced practitioner for the creative and financial opportunities available in film and television; you move here for the laid-back lifestyle and its beautiful climate. I’d lost sight of this when I dropped straight back into the learned behaviour of 30+ years as a freelancer never turning away work, when the approach about editing and mixing this series was first made.

Clearly, I needed to reappraise my personal situation, bearing this obvious and important truth in mind. Yes, I should have done my homework, yes, I should have read Donald Horne’s deeply ironically titled book ‘The Lucky Country’, and I should not so readily have adopted the Aussie default, laissez-faire, fallback position of ‘she’ll be right’. I had no one to blame but myself. No one.

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s home from work I go.

No, of course I didn’t resign from the dialogue edit there and then. I’d never do that to a client once I’d started work on an episode, leaving them in the lurch. Instead, I took 6 days to complete a careful dialogue edit of the first episode, and to prepare a detailed ADR list of the lines that need to be re-recorded. (I’d only be paid for 5 days, though.)

But on subsequent episodes, the dialogue editing will be done by someone else.

Heather and I are nothing if not resourceful and we’re a tight unit: when her 6 professional sewing machines arrive she’ll be open for business; and I know I can use my time to better ends in other ways, such as developing the Sound for Moving Pictures website and serving The Audio Suite clients in the UK who need an ‘overnight’ service.

However, and I like to think of this as a positive, all is not completely lost. Discussions with my client were held with courtesy, no one lost face and I like to think that we’re still on good terms. So I’ve agreed to carry out the final mix of the programmes, just not the lower paid dialogue editing. I’ll be bringing together someone else’s dialogue edit, the Foley, sound effects and the music in my little room.

The mixing was offered on a better hourly rate of pay, although it’s still 45% less than I would earn in the UK. But I’ve decided that in this particular instance, it’s better to be pragmatic rather than pedantic: my Fairlight kit is in place and it’s working beautifully, so I might as well get on with recovering some of my unpaid time, and my investment in the kit, by doing a great job for my new client. It’s also important to not leave my client exposed; they’ve put their trust in me and I’m not going to let them down. But it’s been a dispiriting exercise to learn what creatives in my line of work are paid here.

For the next few days, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the intentions are behind that MEAA rate card, and the fact that it even gets refreshed and re-issued each year; nor how close I’d come to being paid 60% less, here of all places: in blue collar heaven.

And isn’t it absolutely sod’s sodding law that film and television freelance production is possibly the only sector in Australia to be so lowly paid? I mean, come on, think about those ‘Stop-Go’ lollipop operators, pulling in $180k a year.

The great resignation.

So as it turns out, what the great resignation means for me is that once again, I have to resign myself to the fact that the film and television industry is as calculating as it is callous; but it’s not just in Australia that it is a cruelly exploitative master. Which is bizarre, given that this is a time when the film and television industry is experiencing a wide-spread, skills shortage crisis, particularly in the traditional English language production centres around the world.

As Producers publicly wail and wring their hands at the situation they find themselves in, I find it very difficult to summon any sympathy for an industry that has for decades systematically and routinely abused the crews who create the content that production companies go on to sell at huge profit. They are a powerful, financial collective that has time and time again ignored the warnings about a skills shortage crisis, refusing to accept their moral responsibility to invest in training; preferring instead to be opportunistic in their strategy, and taking the short-term gains enticingly presented to them. I’d like to think that their concerns over the creative shortages they’re now experiencing is their commercial karma.

Only this week, the UK trade press magazine Broadcast reported that the ’[…] challenge is to convince newcomers the UK screen industries are an attractive place to work. Stories of harassment and exploitative working hours do not help. The Film and TV Charity last year reported 87% of those working in the sector have experienced a mental health problem.’

As one of my literary heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, wrote:

‘The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.’ (From Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80’s; 1988.)

I know I am a strong person mentally; I know I am resilient, and I know that I am highly experienced; but still, I regularly wake at 3:30am, anxious and worrying about meeting a client’s unrealistic deadlines, which for the most part, will be in return for an unfair fee. I’m currently telling myself that I won’t do it anymore; because whatever the financial reward, it’s simply not worth the cost to my health. Let’s see how resolute I can remain, given that the fee that I was offered as a dialogue editor was $45 per hour (£24), for a job that is paid at £44 per hour in the UK. That would have been a pay cut of 45%… So much for that great Australian, blue collar uplift, then.

But it appears that no one – at any creative level – is immune from being exploited in this industry. To put into context the level and extent of the deceit and dishonesty that abounds in this business, consider this example: Bohemian Rhapsody screenwriter Anthony McCarten is suing the film’s Producer, Graham King (GK Films), because he hasn’t been paid the fee that was promised to him in writing.

The Producer claims that McCarten is not being paid his deferred fee because the $55 million budget film, that has so far grossed $911 million in world-wide sales, is in debt to the tune $51 million; and in any case, GK Films sold on the rights to the film to 20th Century Fox, without the new owner acquiring any of the film’s existing financial obligations.

It’s a well-known sharp practice, this phoney-baloney ‘net profit accounting’, (musicians and author’s royalties are often paid after the record company and publishers costs have been deducted, too); but in feature film production, they’re all at it – from micro to blockbuster movies.

Warner Bros. recently declared that the Harry Potter film Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, a film that has grossed $938.2 million for the studio, is in debt to the tune of $167 million.

To satisfy your natural curiosity of who actually ‘trousers’ the money, generally, the Producers are paid their agreed fees, in full, the moment the camera starts rolling on the first shot – after that, it’s a complete bonus if the film makes a profit; they’ve had their pay-day and any other investors are on their own.

It stinks to high heaven and it makes the financial discussions I’d had with my client seem like we were talking about some lost change down the back of the settee. But be under no illusion: it’s all the same principle at work. Producers make a habit of cheating the people who create the product; and there’s a distinct difference between making a healthy profit and profiteering off other people’s efforts. Ask any freelancer, and they’ll be able to recount their own examples; we wear these experiences like battle scars. We’ve all got some.

The Great Escape.

One of our favourite out-of-the-way places to escape to: The Walloon Saloon. They have the fabulous ‘Little Creatures’ IPA on draught there, too.

On the plus side, by now not needing to work 7 days a week on this project, on Sunday mornings I can continue to find excuses to take part in the great Australian ritual of ‘the sausage sizzler’.

As Australian as Extra Tasty cheese, a Tim Tam or Crocodile Dundee, this splendid pursuit is where each week a different charity barbecues sausages in the car park of a Bunnings warehouse near you, and for $2.50 you get a slice of white bread wrapped around a sausage, which sits on an optional bed of fried onions. There’s even a choice of sauces: BBQ, mustard or ketchup.

I know, I’m not giving it the kind of treatment that Nigella Lawson might breathily provide in a close-mic’d voice-over; but it’s impossible to overstate how the return of the Bunnings sausage sizzler has lifted morale here, following it being outlawed for more than three months; one of the most unpopular Covid restrictions introduced nationwide.

I’ll be honest with you; I’ve been finding all kinds of reasons to visit Bunnings on a Sunday morning. We have a garage full of new garden tools (a hedge trimmer and a Whipper Snipper [strimmer] were last week’s important purchases); and then there have been tomato plants, grow bags, electrical adapters, grass seed, solar fairy lights, an extension cable, plant rooting compound and a branded straw hat, all of which have somehow made it back to our house in the past few weeks. Bunnings could give me, Heather and the grandchildren a sausage sizzler each week for free and still be well into profit.

That outwardly benign ‘handful of happiness’ is no stranger to controversy, however. The fried onions, by law, must now always be served under the sausage, as a result of a legal action brought against Bunnings, for a slip accident that occurred after fried onions from a sizzler had fallen to the floor.

Australia – it’s a bloody dangerous place, mate: you need to beware of sharks, crocodiles, snakes, spiders, jellyfish, stonefish, fire ants, ticks, rip tides… And now you can add to that list, fried onions. Yet despite the dispiriting commercial challenges I’ve had lately, I’m starting to like it. I really am.

Still to come…

The task of getting the first programme mixed on time, on budget and to strict Quality Control standards; and how Sod’s Law makes another unwelcome appearance – the provisional mixing days are perfectly aligned to a bucket list event I have tickets for: the first Ashes Test Match, at the Gabba.

Cover picture: Brisbane viewed from the cliffs at Kangaroo Point on a morning walk. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021]

I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.

Neil Life

3 Replies

  1. I suppose the name Bruce Gyngell might have been a clue all those years ago. We could not quite understand why TV am used so many Australian ( technicians )

    But as usual you are not beaten by all this resistance. Keep pushing I’m willing you on.

    1. John-boy! I remember reading that Gyngell, when he was running TV-am, had somehow ‘come to an agreement’ with Mrs. Thatcher when he conveniently took up her cause to smash the TV unions; and the broadcasting standards were relaxed (dropped) to allow the amateurish output from office Managers and secretaries, who were operating the cameras and mixing the sound, to continue. It was mayhem and the affair was treated like some huge joke. That really was some joke; with huge consequences.
      You might even go so far as to say that the influx of non union, Australian technicians is what paved the way for the free-for-all and carnage that followed for British TV workers, and has continued to flourish to this day in the television industry. Divide and conquer.
      The first Australian wave came to TV-am in 1987; to be followed by many, many more when Sky Television opened up in the UK in 1989. A latter-day gold rush.
      It was of course such sweet justice that TV-am lost their franchise, and Gyngell his job, at renewal time in 1992. He made the fatal mistake of trusting a politician’s word and got his fingers burned.
      Were you at TV-am at that time, or had you left for ITN by then? They were such interesting, unsettled days, weren’t they?
      I do touch on this ‘Big Bang’ and its aftermath in the introduction to my book ‘Sound for Moving Pictures’, but the technical and political history of the industry is deserving of a carefully researched book in its own right. (I may have more time on my hands that I expected, so you never know…) Hahaha!
      We are however, thoroughly enjoying our time here. The people we meet everyday are engaging characters and kind natured; the climate and wildlife impossibly exotic. There are so many positives of being here.
      Lots of love to you and May; you are our dear friends that we miss seeing terribly X

  2. The grass is often ‘not greener’. But I know you’ve faced and survived much tougher challenges than this. And I know you’ll carve out a more acceptable work situation. It seems to be the curse of being self employed, certainly in our environment, one very quickly develops a survival instinct that dictates that almost every offer of work, must be accepted (often regrettably with the benefit of hindsight), just to keep the kids fed. Julie and myself, in the last few years, have been lucky enough to engineer ourselves into a position where we can say no to some of the less attractive looking work requests, but that instinct still nags away, and we (me) still occasionally agree to take on jobs that almost have me in tears as I struggle to meet a commitment made weeks earlier to a seemingly ‘nice customer’! Julie as always is super supportive and never judgemental or critical and I know that Heathwr will make sure you keep life in balance! Take it easy my friend. X

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